Writing for Games: Theory & Practice By Hannah Nicklin

Hannah Nicklin talked about the main topics of the Writing for Games: Theory & Practice book, discussed what can make stories in AAA games clunky, and shared some independent games with thrilling storytelling.

80.lv: Please introduce yourself. Where did you study? What companies have you worked for? What projects have you contributed to?

Hannah Nicklin: I'm Hannah Nicklin, I've done many things in many art forms. I have a degree in Drama, a master's in Playwriting, and a PhD in Interactive Practices as Anti-Capitalist Practice. I've written plays, toured one-woman storytelling shows about ultra-endurance sport, toured a show with a punk band, and worked in communities, with museums, universities, swimming pools, and housing estates.

My practice has involved participatory arts and storytelling, and as I increasingly worked within interactive practices and crossed over more and more into video games, I found a home there, which for now, suits me. The most recent work I'm known for is as the writer and narrative designer on the multiply award-winning Mutazione – a mutant soap opera about intergenerational trauma, family, and how we co-exist with nature. It's more fun to play than it sounds.

80.lv: How and when did you decide to collaborate with Taylor & Francis? What makes this published perfect for you?

Hannah: I think the thing which attracted me was part of their process asked about pedagogy. I've always seen the practice of being a writer (I mean, also a human being) as that of a process – something you're always learning about and always thinking critically about how to improve in all respects. Having space to lay out my book's specific aims in supporting learning was really valuable and allowed me to think through the three-part theory/case study/practice structure, which I think is one of the strengths of the book. No matter how you learn or what you already know, I hope there's something in my book that can support you to understand and develop your practice in the context of games.

80.lv: Could you tell us about your book? Who is it meant for? What are the main topics?

Hannah: Writing for Games: Theory & Practice is an approachable and entry-level text for anyone interested in the craft of writing for videogames – and specifically focuses on writing, not narrative design or environmental storytelling. The book is aimed at both game design students and writers interested in games writing as a practice and aims to provide anyone interested in becoming a better writer in the context of video games.

It's broken into three parts: Theory considers the craft of both games and writing from a theoretical perspective, covering vocabulary for both game and story practices. Case Studies uses three case studies to explore the theory explored in Part One. And the Practical Workbook offers a series of provocations, tools, and exercises aimed at giving the reader the means to refine and develop their writing, not just for now but as a part of a life-long practice.

80.lv: Why did you decide to focus your book on indie projects? What makes them special in your opinion?

Hannah: There's nothing inherently good or bad about independent game development, just as there's nothing inherently good or bad about independent film.

Indie games aren't special, but they have specific material differences in conditions to other scales in the games industry (the introduction to my book lays out in a general way what the different scales might look like) and one of those is that working in indie games (not just applying to indie studios but starting your own company, joining a game jam, or working on student or DIY projects) is just a little easier to access.

Because of that, it seems to me that indie games is a much more natural position to support and develop new game writers, and for writers new to games to develop their practice within.

80.lv: What differentiates game stories from stories in films, animation projects, and other media? What’s your take?

Hannah: I've written for theatre, performance, criticism, museums, physical games, installation, community work, interactive fiction, poetry, games, academia, and more. As I've worked in an increasingly interdisciplinary manner, I've seen more and more clearly the specific affordances of certain forms and how to treat the material of the form you're working with consideration, whilst always drawing on your whole practice, and the richness of centuries of practice.

It's in that context I offer this book – a means of connecting a slightly opaque discipline to that centuries-old practice of storytelling with words and also a means of thinking about yourself as a practitioner inheriting that tradition.

In that context, it would be a bit foolish of me to make grand statements about game stories. Sometimes it's that games tell stories over hundreds of hours – but then, so do TV soap operas. Sometimes, it's that you navigate a space and don't just sit and receive the story – but then, immersive performance and centuries of installation art do the same. Certainly, there are distinctions around the style of dialogue that works better on screen, compared to a play or in a book, but (as you'll find if you read the book) I think the dialogue style in comics is very close to what works best in some games.

Essentially, my conclusions are rarely absolute, and instead of saying Games Are X, this book is about equipping the reader to assess the brief they've been given and the tools and material affordances of the space they've been given to execute it in – and to do their best within that practical framework. Games are not inherently exceptional, and as soon as we understand that they are not inherently anything, we will understand better how to make a game what we want it to be, to tell the story we want it to tell, or to be what it needs to be, for the people we're making it for.

Photo by Julian Dasgupta

80.lv: Most game stories feel like fillers so you know there’s a main quest and you probably have to save someone but you mostly focus on gameplay and treat dialogues as boring pauses. Why do you think this happens? What makes a game story good?

Hannah: I don't think I would agree this is what most game stories are. There's certainly a format that some AAA games have fallen into, which borrows its language heavily from film – if you want to pair interactive mechanics with a filmic story, you will sometimes end up with a story that feels 'on rails', inelegantly swapping between film story and melée. But that doesn't mean it's bad. What's bad is if we accept the premise that's the only way to tell stories with the material of games and if we accept the premise that the model described here can't contain excellent writing – often the standard of character-driven dialogue in AAA games is head and shoulders above indie games where all the characters sound like they're the same person.

When game stories in AAA games are clunky, it should be said, it's often a failure of process and material conditions for the workers involved in making the game. Crunch, poor management and direction, workplace harassment, and bullying. It's hard to find a AAA studio that hasn't been accused of these worker abuses recently. The first thing you could do to improve game storytelling is to improve working conditions, organise international unions, and introduce management and communications training into the Lead structure of promotion on which these studios often run. There's a reason there's an ethics section at the end of part one of my book which encourages game workers to unionise.

But don't accept the premise there's no good games storytelling or writing out there. There are thousands on thousands of thrilling independent games doing things with writing and storytelling that I feel privileged to experience: Eliza is a short, punchy, extremely well-written short study of the ethics of tech, Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realist epic about disaster capitalist USA, Bury Me My Love repurposes the phone in your hand into a messaging app with a refugee as they try and flee Syria for Europe, My Exercise is the funniest physical comedy game I ever saw, and it has no words in it. And speaking of a story with no words, Unpacking does a lot of very clever things with the simple act of moving house to tell the story of a person as they grow. There is also a thriving wonderful interactive fiction scene: take a look at Interactive Fiction Comp (IF Comp) to see all the wonderful things people are doing with the space between book-style-writing and interaction.

I could clearly talk on this point much longer, but to save the poor editor of this interview, I'll stop here and just encourage you to buy my book for more, if you want it.

80.lv: Could you share some of your favorite game stories? Perhaps you could also remember some good characters.

Hannah: I think I answered this above! But also – games writing and stories are my day job, the games I play the most of are usually games without a story, which mostly involve a nice flow of turn-based maths: Slay the Spire, Into the Breach, Loot Rascals. Sometimes, you need a break from your day job.

80.lv: Please also share a couple of tips for beginning writers. What should they always keep in mind? How can they check if a story doesn’t work?

Hannah: My tip is... buy my book? Hard to summarise my tips when I've just spent almost 300 pages laying them out, but I suppose I'd start with:

  • know yourself,
  • situate yourself in a practice,
  • and learn to communicate.

Know who you are, how you learn, and what it will mean to develop yourself as a practitioner and a person – make sure that includes protecting yourself and your wellbeing, operating ethically, and understanding how to listen to your needs, criticise your work, and draw a pathway for your development.

Situate yourself in a rich history of storytelling beyond games, understand how to pull apart other works and see how they work, equip yourself with the tools and vocabulary centuries of story practitioners have developed, and then apply them within the material conditions of the brief you've been given, and the tools you have to fulfill it.

And finally, communication – as part of a team that will span many different disciplines, you will need to learn to listen, understand, and communicate complex ideas across disciplinary boundaries. There are a number of examples in the book that support this and all of the above principles. And where my tools aren't sufficient, there are also many further resources and an extensive bibliography to help you find your way and build your toolkit.

Hannah Nicklin, Writer and Game Designer

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

Hannah Nicklin’s Writing for Games is available for purchase now from CRC Press, in paperback and eBook format.

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